Shooting on Location in Potrero Hill — Film Crew Transforms a Neighborhood
by Julia Segrove
Since late March, film location scout Gail Stempler has been working at a fever pitch to get Potrero Hill residents, merchants and several locations ready for seven days of filming for "Sweet November," a feature film starring Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix") and Charlize Theron ("The Cider House Rules"). The independently produced project, a remake of a 1968 drama that starred Sandy Dennis, Anthony Newley and Theodore Bikel, is being shot entirely in San Francisco by Sweet November Productions, Inc., a Presidio-based film company.
The film company was to shoot scenes on 18th and Missouri Streets, and "at and around" Christopher's Books, Farley's and Bloom's Saloon, beginning May 2. Shooting continues through May 8 and "wraps up" on June 14, when the film crew returns to shoot an "all nighter" at Bloom's Saloon. Although Stempler did get residents and merchants to agree to a seven day shooting schedule, she first had to meet with the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Assn. to address community concerns and questions about how the film company intends to minimize the level of disruption that a week of filming will bring to our neighborhood.
At the March 28 meeting, in addition to telling the Boosters that her company would provide valet parking to residents and make an effort to keep the noise level down, Stempler said Sweet November Productions would donate $10,000 to Potrero community organizations. According to the Boosters' Dick Millet, who has already received the check, distribution of the monies to "community selected projects and causes" will be made by the Boosters, the Potrero Hill Merchants Assn., the Dogpatch Neighborhood Ass., and the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.
Whether residents like it or not, the neighborhood is impossibly photogenic and offers some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline. As a result, Hill residents are no strangers to film crews. In the past year, several television production and advertising companies have used the neighborhood as a setting for their projects, ("Nash Bridges," "Party of Five," and an "Eddie Bauer" commercial). And given that Potrero Hill is rapidly becoming a "trendy" neighborhood, it's very likely there'll be even more film production activity in the future.
Nonetheless, production companies should take seriously some of the complaints made by the residents. In particular, bright lights and high noise levels during the night filming often keep residents awake. Some Hill residents have expressed concern about "rude and arrogant" film crews and officers of the S.F. Police Dept. And since parking space is already scarce in the neighborhood, production trailers that occupy several parking spaces and double-parked trucks are a major source of frustration for many people on the Hill.
According to the guidelines prepared by the San Francisco Film and Video Arts Commission, the liaison between the film industry and neighborhood and merchant groups, filming activity in residential areas is normally allowed only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. If a film company must film outside those hours the company must petition the neighborhood and collect signatures from residents. Since Sweet November's shooting schedule does include late night and all night filming activity, Stempler has been speaking to several residents to get approval.
The Boosters' John De Castro, who lives on Missouri Street, has been vocal about the "ongoing disruption" that a seven-day filming schedule with "extended hours" presents for him and his family. He's also concerned about the noise levels and the possibility that the film crew may fail to use wheel blocks on production trucks parked on steep hills.
After meeting with Stempler, De Castro says the film company is making a concerned effort to be a "good guest" in the neighborhood and, unlike previous film companies, Sweet November Productions is complying with the Commission's guidelines. De Castro urges Hill residents to become familiar with the Commission's guidelines — some of which cater to the needs of production companies — and make the Commission's Executive Director, P.J. Johnston, aware of their concerns.
Several merchants who talked to The View say that Stempler and the film company's $10,000 donation to the Hill and eagerness to work with members of the community is a move in the right direction. In fact, Roger Hillyard, the owner of Farley's, believes that Stempler's professional approach and honesty is an indication that the Sweet November filming will be "less disruptive than other productions on the Hill."
Hillyard, who's agreed to let the film company rent his coffee house for one day, says he's particularly impressed by the production company's offer to provide residents with valet parking and its willingness to put up people who are displaced by the filming activity in hotels. "If anything, this whole thing has pulled people together and has them communicating with each other," says Hillyard, who plans to donate some of the money he's receiving as compensation for the use of his space to the Merchants Assn. Also, since Hillyard, who lives in an apartment above his store, recognizes the disruption the one-day closing of Farley's brings to his employees and customers, he intends to pay his entire staff for the day Farley's is closed. After production is completed, Hillyard and Sweet November Productions will co-sponsor a "free coffee day" for Hill residents. Stempler has also entered into an agreement with Leslie Goldberg, the owner of "Hazel's," to purchase sandwiches for the crew.
Tee Minot, owner of Christopher's Books, is also taking a positive attitude toward the Sweet November filming activity. Minot's store will be closed for one day while the film company shoots "exterior" scenes for the film. "I don't really know how I feel about it. But there's a part of me that thinks it's exciting to see our neighborhood used in a movie," says Minot, who plays to donate a huge part of the money she's receiving for the annual book drive. "For that reason alone, it's okay with me if I'm inconvenienced."
Minot, who also lives on the Hill, attributes some of the resistance to the Sweet November's presence in the neighborhood as part of a larger issue. "The fact of the matter is Potrero Hill is changing whether we like it or not."
In the meantime, however, many residents and merchants are taking a "wait and see" attitude. If Stempler and the production company come through on their promises to both residents and merchants, then many members of the community are more likely to let production companies use Potrero Hill as a setting for movies and commercials.